It’s one thing to fail a test when you haven’t invested your full effort. However, when you fully invest your time and effort, only to come up just a little bit short, it’s among the worst feelings in the world.

Failing a section of the CPA Exam can feel like an overwhelmingly negative setback. At first, you might even feel like giving up on the process.

But the truth is that you are in very good company. With cumulative pass rates hovering in the low to mid 50% range, many other people fail one or more exam sections, but still go on to earn their CPA license.

The key is not giving up. If you didn’t quite pass the first time, that means you just need to adjust your study strategy to help you over that final hurdle. This article will highlight five simple strategies to help you improve your CPA Exam score.

1. Be honest with yourself

Before considering more specific strategies, it’s really important that you take a hard look at your performance on the last test. When people fail a section of the CPA Exam, it usually comes down to one of two reasons: not studying enough or studying inefficiently. If you stop and think about how much time you really spent studying, it’s pretty easy to know which side of the fence you landed.

The reason it’s really important to be honest with yourself about that question is because the answer will guide your study approach for the next time you sit for the exam. Fixing insufficient studying is also much easier than fixing inefficient studying.

The next strategies in this article will focus on improving your study efficiency. Keep in mind these are not short-term fixes. If you want to make a meaningful improvement in your CPA Exam score, you will need to apply these strategies consistently throughout your study plan.

2. Repetition

Improving memory retention is probably the single most important thing you can do to increase your CPA Exam score. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to increasing memory retention. But you can meaningfully improve your memory retention by making some small and consistent changes in your study routine.

As discussed in a recent APA article, college students cited “repetitive reading of notes or textbooks” as their primary study strategy. This also happens to be the least effective way of retaining new material.

According to the same article, the most effective way to increase memory retention was learning new information and regularly retrieving that information over spaced time periods. In fact, the results of the experiment showed that spaced retrieval of new information dramatically outperformed the other learning methods tested.

3. Applying spaced retrieval with the CPA Exam

In order to really cement the information in your mind, you need to continually practice CPA sample questions as part of a core study program. You might initially start by reading written study material, but you need to regularly quiz yourself with practice questions on those topics if you want to internalize the material.

Surgent provides extensive resources to help you internalize CPA Exam concepts. Surgent’s advanced algorithmically-based practice question software and written flashcards are excellent ways to regularly test your skill level over spaced time intervals.

One challenge with practice questions can be seeing the same questions repeated over time. Surgent offers an easy fix to this issue with one of the largest databases of practice questions on the market. Surgent’s test bank includes over 7,700 multiple-choice questions and over 400 task-based simulation questions. For even more questions, the Ultimate Pass includes an extra 1,000 multiple-choice questions.

4. Regularly vary your study routine

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new neural connections throughout your life. This means that your brain responds positively to new learning challenges. In simple terms, you can either use it or lose it! By regularly pushing yourself to learn new things, your mind will become sharper and your memory retention will improve.

When studying for a test like the CPA Exam, you can challenge yourself by varying your study routine.

Think of it in terms of muscle building at the gym. If you follow the same workout routine, your muscles will get used to the routine and stop growing as fast. When you vary the weight, the reps, or even the exercises, you can stimulate extra muscle growth.

The same formula works with your brain. Rather than following the same study routine each week, make it a point to regularly change how you study on a weekly or monthly basis.

5. Closely track your weakest topic areas

CPA Exam scoring incorporates question difficulty into your final score. This means that improving your ability to answer harder questions will have a greater influence on your final score. The best way to improve your ability with harder questions is by increasing your exposure to those question types.

There are two ways you can approach this. The first option is to closely monitor your progress over time. Start by taking a full-length practice exam. Review your exam performance in close detail. Identify your weakest topic areas and more heavily weight those topics areas when you develop a CPA Exam study plan.

Get in the habit of testing yourself on those topic areas on a weekly basis and track how your scoring changes over time.

The second and more efficient option is to utilize Surgent’s algorithmically-based learning program to dynamically monitor your performance in real time. This frees up your time to focus on exam content rather than your study habits.

6. Create a positive feedback loop

The final strategy to keep in mind combines a few of the other tips. A big part of your success on exam day will come from your personal mindset.

In order to create a positive feedback loop, you want to make sure you regularly practice topic areas that are strengths. By regularly practicing easier topics, you give yourself positive reinforcement that is critical to keep you motivated when you experience challenges and setbacks in your performance. The key is to regularly space out that exposure over time.

This combines the benefits of positive feedback with spaced out memory retrieval of that material. When you regularly receive positive feedback, you will find it much easier to bounce back from negative feedback.

Another way to create a positive feedback loop is by cutting off hard material when you hit a wall. Instead of forcing yourself to answer 10 more hard questions, cut off the topic, and move into an easier topic for the rest of the night.

Wait a few days before going back to that harder topic. Build up positive momentum by going back over less challenging practice questions. When you do go back to that harder topic again, attack the topic in smaller and more manageable bites. With time and repetition, you can gradually increase your exposure to those question types.

Surgent’s A.S.A.P.® Technology was designed to dynamically monitor your skill level and progress in real time. Rather than constantly monitoring your own progress, let Surgent’s algorithm do the hard work for you. The net result is a highly efficient and personalized study program that has the potential to reduce your overall study time.


This article was written by Lou Haverty, CFA. Lou is the founder of Financial Analyst Insider, which is a resource for aspiring finance and accounting professionals to advance their careers.